“Side Effects” – a Preview of the Forthcoming Deconstruction

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by Larry Brooks on February 15, 2013

Two quickie personal announcements (the downside of having a not-in-service newsletter, which I’m working on resurrecting):

Check out the March/April issue of Writers Digest Magazine.  Above the cover banner is the header: “The Plot Thickens: A Step-by-Step Guide to Subplots.”  Once inside you’ll find three articles on this topic, one of which is by yours truly.

I’m on Page 60: “Using Subplots to Enhance Subtext.”

Because I’m all about the subtext these days.

Also, click HERE to see the new covers from my new novel (“Deadly Faux,” also shown in the right hand column here) and four of my five backlist novels, all to be published/republished later this year, and one in early 2014, by Turner Publishing.

On to “Side Effects

(NOTE for those who haven’t yet seen the film: spoilers follow.  Reading this won’t compromise your learning experience – indeed, it may enhance it – but it could rain on your popcorn experience.

In preparation for the deconstruction, which will launch a week from Monday (2-25), I took my iPad to the theater this week to prepare.  Seeing it a second time is even more illuminating… you’ll want to do just that after the deconstruction gets in your head.

You just may be a completely different storyteller when that happens.

Why?  Because – and this is just of many examples – you won’t believe the utter preponderance of foreshadowing that peppers all of Parts 1 and 2 of the film (up to the Mid-Point, and even beyond that).  The complex plot, which seems to entirely shift lanes just when you think you’ve got it nailed, is completely without logic holes or any lack of a visible lineage… yet nobody in the place sees it coming.

I charted 94 scenes over 106 minutes.  Of course, this may not map precisely to the script, because film editing often cuts scenes into pieces interspersed with cutaways and establishing shots, each of which could be interpreted as a scene.  Many of the scenes are lightning fast, making their point (their mission) quickly, without the clutter of chit-chat or unnecessary exposition.

A novel would most likely be constructed in an expositionally tighter way, with longer scenes that embrace some of the shorter beats in the film… but that doesn’t take away from the plethora of learning this film offers.

What You’ll Learn

Me, too.

Pacing – one of the essential realms of Story Physics – is something this story models clearly and effectively.  The story is screaming forward from the first frame… even when you don’t notice that happening.

You’ll realize that this story – the version you see, the final version – would be impossible to “pants.”  To make up as you go along.  This is not to say you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) pants your way TO this final version (this being the highest goal of both pantsing and planning), but there’s no way you could assemble this story sequence without knowing the ending.

From scene one.  No way.  If you doubt that (entire stadiums full of organic writers still do), this film will convince you that this is true.

You’ll learn the critical role of foreshadowing, especially in a thriller that’s also a mystery (both apply here) with psychological story variables.

You’ll learn – because you’ll see it, big time – how a theme does NOT have to actually be the plot, how it emerges from the plot and the character arcs.  How plot and character provide a platform for theme (there’s a lot of preaching going on in the film, but you’ll realize it’s a plot device that, coincidentally, happens to have thematic weight).

Until we read it in an article somewhere, we have no idea where Scott Z. Burns began this story journey.  Perhaps with a burning need to write a story that shows us the dangers of prescription ISSDs (depression drugs).  Astute writers like Burns, though, realize that such a focus wouldn’t result in an effective story in a dramatic sense… and thus, the story became about something else in that context.

You’ll see the structural milestones in play.  You’ll also see how they can either be ramped up and become the culmination of a sequence of related scenes… or they can drop out of the narrative sky and explode the story into something… else.  In this case, not where you’d think it would happen.

You’ll, I hope, how you can execute a necessary plot turn and insert expositional information, without having to force it into play, which can easily happen when you settle, or force an idea into being.  The more complex your story (and this one is very complex), the more you need to make sure your story beats make sense.

You’ll see how the hero becomes the primary catalyst in the story’s salvation.

In fact, for a while you may not realize who the hero in this even is.  Uniforms change several times, all by the design of the storytellers.

You’ll learn how and why subplots are part of the story.  They aren’t side shows (though they seem to be for a while), the best subplots are there to contribute causal factors and stakes.

This is the highest calling of a subplot.  Of which there are several here, all doing exactly that.

Most of all – and this is perhaps only evident after you’ve studied the story in full deconstructed detail – you’ll learn…

Why it is so important for the author to know what the CORE story is.

It isn’t the theme.   It hardly ever is.

You, the viewer, will think so… and maybe the writer even thought so originally.  But it turns out not to be the core story, trust me.  And you’ll see, without knowing the true core story here, how one might mishandle the tricky First Plot Point…

… because the FPP ISN’T the most dramatic scene in this movie.  Rare… but that’s part of why this film is remarkable.  (For those cynics who think I preach a formula… suck on that one.)  Not by a mile.

No, the FPP in this film does just what it is supposed to do: launch the core story, with antagonism and stakes in place.

You’ll see the four part model executed, in spades. 

At 106 minutes of running time, the optimal targets for the three major story milestones are: 21 minutes (FPP)… 53 minutes (MP)… 85 minutes (2ndPP).

In the movie the FPP arrives at the 25 minute mark.

You may think you’ve seen the FPP before this, but those story beats turn out to be a handful of key Inciting Incidents.  The true FPP changes the story in an almost official way, truly launching the hero’s quest and need (though the hero doesn’t know it yet, which means the viewer doesn’t either… but trust me, the writer DOES, and needs to), as well as the antagonistic force that will be shown to be opposing that quest.

The first Pinch Point is at 35 minutes in… almost dead on.

This is a tricky one, because this is actually THE MOST SIGNLFICANT STORY BEAT IN THE FILM… but in retrospect (you’ll think it’s the FPP) is clearly the Pinch Point and not a late FPP.   Because this scene is a dramatic REACTION context (to the FPP), and (as you’ll understand when you’re walking out of the theater), not the launch of the hero’s problem journey (THAT happened at the FPP, where it was supposed to).

The learning being… you can weigh and execute these structural points any way you please… as long as they emerge from a narrative strategy.

Formula, my ass.

The Mid-Point creates a brand new context for the story at 58 minutes (a bit after the optimal target), after a few scenes that set it up (also something this film teaches us).  The CORE story here emerges fully at this point, not before… the hallmark of a brilliant Mid-Point.

And thus we learn that we have wiggle room in this aspect of story design, and that the optimal target are important as our design paradigm, rather than our design specificity.

Shoot for optimal, then do what you have to do.

The Second Plot Point arrives at… well, how about I leave that for you to decide.  See if you can spot it, and time it.  We’ll nail it down in the deconstruction itself.

You’ll also see how the assigned contexts of each part (the narrative missions of each scene within each respective part) is absolutely in play.  Part 1 is pure setup, and little else.  Part 2 shows everybody responding to the FPP.  Part 3 shows our hero beginning to be proactive and lean into heroism.  And Part 4 is all about resolution, and on several levels.

It’s the story physics of that resolution that give this story its most powerful dose of story physics.  The film teaches the importance of that, in spades.

If you aren’t familiar with these concepts, try to ramp up before seeing the movie. Because seeing IS believing, and this film is a clinic in all these things.

If you’ve been looking for a way to cement your knowledge of storytelling craft, and be knocked out of your seat in the process… “Side Effects ” is your two-hour, nine dollar seminar.

The deconstruction launches Monday, February 25th.

*****

Postscript: so picture me in the last row of a nearly deserted theater, midweek matinee, one of those food-service-at-your-seat places (so I could, a) park my iPad on a table, and b) get a burger I can write off).

As the film opened I noticed I had a battery reserve of 14 percent on my iPad.  Bad planning.  I kept an eye on this as I bulleted every scene (the result being a scene-log I will make available as part of this process).

When the Second Plot Point hit, there was 5 percent remaining.  My bullets became shorter and shorter.

When the final scene came up and credits rolled… the battery died.

Right on cue.

Like it was meant to be.

 

 

{ 17 comments }

Tony McFadden February 16, 2013 at 3:55 am

Looking forward to this.

I’ve been deconstructing movies on my site also. I feel it helps me create by learning how others have created.

Just as an aside, I also did a story deconstruction of a 60 second jeep commercial. They nailed it, pinch points and all.

Joanna Aislinn February 16, 2013 at 9:36 am

Hoping to get myself to the movie this weekend and be all geared up for your reconstruction! Enjoy your weekend.

Chris Norbury February 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Great stuff, Larry. Just saw the movie and WOW, WOW, WOW. Brilliant structure. Pace was bullet train speed but like you said, didn’t feel that way. The plot twists were just like you said, hard to tell who the hero/heroine was after the midpoint.

I think I caught a typo in your post that might be important. You said the MP (Mid Point) should optimally occur at the 33-minute mark. I think you meant the 53-minute mark (50% of 106 minutes). If I’m mistaken, please explain what I missed.

Can’t wait for your deconstruction. I might see the flick again and start my own deconstruction, see if I got it right.

Sara Davies February 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm

It was interesting how the writer chose to reveal or conceal information at different times. But while the construction of the plot is interesting, I came away unable to identify a theme. It could have been a message about the evils of pharmaceuticals, but the story wasn’t, as I experienced it, ultimately about much of anything.

The problem is that it’s hard to identify the antagonist, so there is no adequate pay-off. If there is no clear fight, no one and nothing to root for, there is no build-up, no opportunity to become invested in the outcome. I ended up not caring about or connecting with any of the characters, including the hero.

The plot is so complex that despite trying to identify the major plot points, I couldn’t. It would probably take multiple viewings to see them, so I look forward to your deconstruction of the story.

Robert Jones February 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Interesting. Haven’t seen it, and not sure I will until after the deconstruction. My feeling, based on all the comments (including Larry’s) is that I would either get so caught up in the story that I would miss the key points without multiple viewing, or I would fry my brain trying to put it all together in a movie this complex sounding.

Maybe I’m getting old…LOL!

We don’t have tables and burgers at any theaters around here. Frankly, I was picturing Larry in the back row with a notebook and a Mighty Bright, trying not to disturb anyone while scribbling away a hundred miles and hour. I have to admit, the burger and the iPad sounds a much better way to go, as does the convenient table (as improbable as that may seem around here)–but not quite as humorous :)

Sara Davies February 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm

It’s interesting what people respond to. I loved “The Messenger,” which is a film in which almost nothing happens – two guys drive around town telling people their relatives are dead. They go on a road trip, crash a party, and wax confessional. The end. Haunting, memorable, captivating enough to watch five times and enjoy every viewing, for the dialogue, characters, book-ending of symbolic elements and emotional contrasts, containment to revelation. It was easy to identify the plot points, which are turns based on emotion not action. A lot of folks would be bored out of their minds.

“Side Effects” is the polar opposite – heavy on events, mystery and suspense, but devoid of character development. No one grows, learns, or changes in this film. The only thematic question raised is revealed to be a trick, a ploy to throw the audience off track, which cancels its power.

Stories that move me tend to emphasize the internal trajectory of the characters, but I don’t object to a compelling narrative. I like to see both.

Larry February 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm

@Sara – I agree and disagree. “The Messenger” was an excellent film, I agree. The POINT of it, the mission, was character arc. That said, character arc, while always a good thing, ISN’T always the centerpiece, the focal point, the primary mission of other great stories. To suggest that Side Effects is inferior for this is like saying “The Messenger” is inferior for being so character driven. That’s naive on both counts. There are many flavors of stories out there, all built with the same bricks, but different according to design and intention. And genre. That’s key.

Story points based on actions and events… in thrillers and mysteries, always a good thing. Same response here — depends on the genre. “Side Effects” is a thriller. It NEEDS story twists to work. A good thing, not a diminishing quality of the story. And yet, the psychology of the characters is what makes it work.

“Side Effects” is, it turns out, is a “psychological thriller.” Which is a genre that really doesn’t compare, criteria by criteria, to other genres (including the genre of “The Messenger”). Which means the story CHANGES at the story points, not necessarily the characters. And when you say “no one grows or changes in the film,” I highly disagree. The hero (the Jude Law character) has an almost complete heroic change in character. Nobody changes in the James Bond films, either… does that make that genre inferior? I think not. If you think Emily was the protagonist, she wasn’t (you missed a good movie if that’s the case), and thus it was NOT incumbent upon the story to change her. Bad guys rarely change in thrillers. The get their comeuppance, which Emily certainly does.

And as for theme, me thinks you don’t quite “get” theme yet. The idea is NEVER to SELL the audience on a theme (at least in good stories), it’s to get the audience to engage and wrestle with one. Which this film does, in abundance, especially in the first half. Nothing about the films narrative messages regarding the dangers of prescription drugs is either compromised or fogged by the fact that the characters USED THAT VERY TRUTH to perpetrate their crime. And what you call “a trick” is anything but, it’s great storytelling. It’s a complex and layered narrative, which isn’t everybody’s bag. If you toss out every story that fools the characters and the readers/viewers, you’d have a very small library left to hold them.

Be careful with absolutism and elitism when throwing out your opinion. Obviously, yours is a minority opinion here, and you would have the rest of us feel like dummies for liking this film. Just like I can’t and shouldn’t imply you are a dummy for not liking it, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that your view is just that, your view, and it doesn’t define excellence or failure either way.

“Side Effects” is an excellent storytelling cadaver to dissect… you don’t have to like the guy on the table to get the learning from his bones. I hope you can get past your personal preferences and learn something from this story, but you’ll have to take your blinders off to get there. L.

Sara Davies February 19, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Larry, my comment is not about what is “inferior” or “superior” but does reflect my personal preferences. I like psychological thrillers. “The Game” is a good example, or “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” or “Memento,” all of which focused on character.

Sorry if my opinion or preferences come across as “elitist.” I don’t consider people who disagree with me to be elitist or stupid. I don’t think anyone is stupid for liking “Side Effects” and I certainly don’t think the guy who wrote it is stupid. If I thought that, it wouldn’t be worth commenting on at all. I don’t go through life looking for opportunities to make other people feel stupid – unlike this movie, which obviously does have that as part of its agenda. It’s a brilliant movie. I just happen to have walked out of it feeling cheated, annoyed, manipulated, disgusted, offended…and I’m still angry about it, so I guess the story must have been about something, I’m just not sure what. Does that make the movie an abomination against the gods? No. Does it make people who like it wrong? No. Does it make the writer a bad writer? Of course not. But it doesn’t make me wrong either, speaking of absolutes. I can hate something and still recognize its quality. I don’t consider being in the minority about almost everything to be an “elitist” position, but if you do, that’s your prerogative.

What this movie does show me is that I don’t want to write a book in which character arc doesn’t matter. So I’m not going to write a story like that.

Robert Jones February 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Like Sara, there’s a great chunk of me that prefers character movies, and the same in literary novels. On the other hand, I grew up on horror, action, and to some degree sci-fi. However, I went through a period as I grew older, where the writer side of me really enjoyed the “slice of life” stories because they were about human nature. And human spirit triumphing is (or so I’ve come to learn) the greatest battle of all because we’re all villains who shoot down one another out of gredd, hate, or just plain envy–if I can’t do it, why should you?

Obstacles are everywhere, and often they don’t make sense until we perceive the inner working of those around us, who will either claim ignorance, or simply become hostile because our goals remind them of a time when they had a goal and allowed themselves to be talked out of it, or threatened to be cut off, thrown out, divorced, if they followed through. Psychosis is the great saboteur–inner and outer demons.

So I get what Sara is saying here. Not having seen the film, I will reserve judgment on that score. Character arc can be very gritty, if planned right. It will (or should) enhance suspense, stakes, and empathy. Many times Hollywood short changes character arc, or replaces it entirely with the thrill of the circumstances. And if the circumstances don’t happen to move you–the payoff falls flat.

Sounds like this is what Sara experienced for whatever reason here. It could be personal preference, too high an expectation, or a dozen other factors. I’ve disliked movies, came back to them later and liked them simply because when someone tells me something is great, I’ll get all picky and expectations won’t fit.

But the thing I’m really interesting in, concerning this film, is that it sounds like the missions of plot points are interchanged a bit. I’ve seen some films that did something similar and thought it was because they were slightly older films and the criteria was a bit different. And didn’t the set up have to be within the first ten minutes at one time in a screen-play? Because after that, they often leap right into response, no 20th-25th percentile that I could see. Newer films, yes, but go back twenty years or so and the format, at least in terms of percentages, was a little different.

Most importantly, it sounds as if this film, once deconstructed will teach us all a great deal. Larry, you’ve always said the basic guidlines for structure were just that “basic guidlines” within which a plot is framed. So, fr example, as long as the first plot-point falls into the area of game changer for the plot, and gives the reader that need to find out what happens, springing the characters into reponse mode, it may not necesarily be the most important moment of the plot–maybe just the first truly important moment in terms of shifting the engine into high gear. arguably, that still may be the most important moment, since your story is dead without that shift. But like the engine of a car, aren’t all those shifts equally important? You couldn’t pull out onto the freeway and hope to keep up with the pack if you never fot out of first gear. But then you need to get out of second gear, and so forth, or you’re still sitting in the slow traffic lane pissing everyone off.

Sara Davies February 19, 2013 at 7:43 pm

@Robert: What makes this movie unusual is the way the main character is a moving target about 75% of the way into the film. I like thrillers – political, action, psychological, sci-fi – any kind. I like mysteries. Read a lot of them. But without character development, to me a story feels empty. If I have to choose between action (plot) and content (character arc) I will choose a character-focused story every time. Character can make a story real in ways plot, by itself, never can. If I don’t see character development or experience what happens as character development, there is, in effect, no character development. That’s not an argument, judgment, or even an opinion – it’s my experience. The movie itself is like a crazy person, lying to and manipulating the audience, so in that sense, maybe the plot itself is the main character.

Robert Jones February 19, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Sara, I agree. Any writer who neglects this is missing the golden egg of opportunity because everything that ties a reader/viewer to a story emotionally, comes from character development.

Though I must admit, hearing a bit of controversy in terms of opinion on this movie is making me more anxious to see it and scrutinize it for myself.

Larry Brooks February 19, 2013 at 9:45 pm

@Sara — your thoughts and contributions are always welcome and honored here. Larry

RH Keeling February 20, 2013 at 8:10 am

Saw the movie last night. I’m excited about reading your deconstruction of it. The story’s foreshadowing and plot’s twists and turns were intriguing. Found myself thinking about it long after leaving the theater, unlike most other movies I normally see. I very much liked the final resolution… brilliant and quite satisfying.

Thanks for doing this Larry.

Sara Davies February 20, 2013 at 10:43 am

@Larry: I wasn’t trying to start a fight. I wouldn’t read your book, read your blog, or solicit your feedback if I didn’t respect and appreciate what you have to say. Right? And people who don’t? Their loss. If anything, I’m frustrated that I don’t get it yet, but it sounds like that came across as derisive. Wasn’t meant to be at all. I apologize.

@Robert: You are a sweetheart. It’s is a pretty intense film, which raises all kinds of emotional baggage, kind of caught me off guard. I watch a lot of heavy stuff that usually doesn’t get under my skin in the same way. It’s definitely worth seeing.

Olga Oliver February 21, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Just saw the DVD a second time. Apparently, I’m a doddle-bug-dummy. Except for the life-or-death possibilities, seems to me the movie runs right alongside The Devil Wore Prada. And I must ask a question. Would someone please explain exactly what is a psychological thriller? Is there really a need to twist my brain synapses into a tug-of-war in order to understand the salesperon Karly’s problems plus the pharmaceutical people’s problems. Karly’s dealing with lies, big checks, BMWs, fancy watches and becoming aware that those things don’t kiss. I worked for one of the largest pharmaceuticals several years back. My figures on the whiteboard was 120. I’m looking forward to this deconstruction. Have a feeling I really need it.

Jeremy February 25, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Larry is teaching you how to make the worlds best BBQ, and Sara says that she prefers French cuisine. Fair enough. But what does your preference for French cuisine have to do with making great BBQ, especially when we know we can make a fine living running a BBQ establishment instead of working a “real” job for The Man?

Dave H February 28, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Just saw the movie, nicely coinciding of my just getting into Story Engineering (and finding it super-helpful). I’m finding the deconstruction quite interesting, and we’ll see the movie again before long to get those second-viewing insights- I can recall there are a number of things in plain sight that fit the ‘wrong model of what’s going on’ that the story leads the viewer into.
While watching I thought the pace seemed just a little slow – as though the movie could have lost about 3-5 mins and been tightened up a little. But upon reflection that might have been an illusion – it really did move faster and was more compact than it seemed. I’ll have to munch on that aspect.
Larry – thanks for your insights in SE – I really resonate with the way you’ve thought things through – and your excellent analogies.

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